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How Young is Too Young Before CPS Gets Involved?

From Texas Standard:

Editor's note: This story contains language that may not be appropriate for all readers.

In Texas, the law is pretty clear when it comes to who's responsible for reporting abuse or neglect– pretty much anyone who thinks abuse or neglect is happening. Often, that person is a delivery nurse or a doctor.

For hundreds of babies born in Texas each year, their first caregiver is the state.  In the last five years, Texas Child Protective Services has taken custody of more than 5,500 newborns – removing them from their biological parents shortly after being born.

But how does CPS become part of a child's life, when that life has barely begun?

"The hospital calls us either at the time the baby is born or shortly after the baby is born if they have concerns," says Lisa Guyton with Child Protective Services.

One phone call is all it took for CPS to become intrinsically involved in the lives of Courtney Meeks and William Welch.

I arrived at the hospital the morning after their baby girl was delivered. Welch was still in awe. His hands are trembling and thick tears roll down his cheeks as he describes the moment his daughter came into the world.

"Amazing, it was amazing! I had never seen anything like that," he says. "I can't even explain it – you know?"

But the shaking and tears aren’t just of pure joy. Welch is terrified.

The challenges that lay ahead are huge – for starters, he and Courtney Meeks are homeless. They're also recovering addicts.

As we talk about these things, a nurse comes into the room. It's only been one full day since Meeks’s C-section. Still, the discharge means it's time for Meeks and Welch to go back to their camp, somewhere in the woods of Austin.

But they wouldn't be leaving with their baby. Instead, baby Eve will stay at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU.

"We don't like the fact that we have to leave her here," Meeks says, crying. "We bought everything but it's at my dad's house."

Before the baby was born, the plan was for Meeks to move in with her dad in Beaumont. That's where she took the baby's crib and all the stuff people gave her. But like most infants born to homeless mothers, Eve came early. She was also underweight and in fragile health.

The hospital is running all sorts of tests on baby Eve – especially since Meeks just tested positive for HIV.

CPS's Guyton says her agency doesn't get involved just because a parent may be HIV positive, or just because they may be homeless. She says CPS is always looking for ways to keep the family together.

"Do they have access to shelter? Do they have access to water, to electricity … so that they'd be able to meet the basic needs of the child?" Guyton asks.

Though illness and homelessness are not automatic triggers for CPS involvement, drugs are.

Courtney Meeks and William Welch discovered that quickly. They say they stayed clean during most of the pregnancy but towards the end they say they relapsed. This relapse is terrifying, Welch says.

"I might lose her – you know? … I might lose the baby," he says.

At age 42, this is Welch’s only child. The possibility of losing her makes him feel like the world around him is crumbling.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Meeks (front) and Welch walk into the NICU at an Austin-area hospital to visit with their newborn.

It's been a couple of days since Eve was born. The couple sits under a tree, and they have good news: a state-funded drug-rehab program will accept them in an attempt to cure their addiction.

Meeks and Welch have committed to going – but before they do, CPS asks that they find someone willing and able to care for baby Eve.

"My dad first he said he would do it," she says, crying. "Now, he says 'Do I realize how hard this is' for him?"

Meeks realizes it is too much for her father. He's elderly. His health is failing. His financial situation is very tight. She hangs up the phone.

"I offered to send him gas money and he's like – you don't fucking have any money! Fuck you! I do," Meeks says.

Back to the phone, she calls an aunt, a cousin. She's running out of options. She calls a friend. Nothing. So, it's back to her dad.

This time Welch does the talking. We're not asking you for money, he says, but we are asking for your help.

It's been more than a week and help has yet to arrive. Through the NICU window I see baby Eve. She looks like she's in a cocoon, protected, completely unaware of the enormous fight going on about where she’ll go next.

The Standard has been following Meeks and Welch since January. We've reported on their pregnancy and search for housing.  

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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